Saturday, February 13, 2016

Word Magazine # 47: Gilbert and "Silly Statements" on the NT Text

That's right, back to back Word Magazines!  I have posted audio for WM # 47: Gilbert and "Silly Statements" on the NT Text.  Below are my notes:

On Monday, February 9, 2016 a blog post appeared on the Neo-Calvinistic Gospel Coalition website, titled, “Debunking Silly Statements about the Bible.”   The article is written by  Greg Gilbert, pastor of Third Avenue BC in Louisville, KY, the author of several books published by Crossway, a protégé of Mark Dever, and a regular 9 Marks ministry contributor.  A note at the end of the article explains that the post is an excerpt from Gilbert’s book Why Trust the Bible? (Crossway, 2015) and first appeared on the website.

The post is presented as a defense against “silly” attacks on the Bible like that which appeared in the notoriously flawed 2014 Newsweek article by Kurt Eichenwald which assailed the authenticity and authority of the text of the Bible as “copies of copies.”

It is Gilbert’s article, however, that has itself now come under fire for more than its fair share of factual problems and “silly” statements about the text and transmission of the Bible.

For some of these criticisms, see the comments (especially the post by James Snapp, a restorationist pastor well-informed on text matters and an intrepid defender of the Longer Ending of Mark) under the original posting.

Peter Head’s Evangelical Academic Critique:

More substantially, see the critique offered by Peter Head in a February 10  Evangelical Text Criticism blog-post and the comments.  Head, a Cambridge fellow whose area of study is text criticism, does not mince words in his review which begins, “Unfortunately all around (for the author, Greg Gilbert, his book, the Gospel Coalition) this post contains a number of Silly Statements about the Bible. Christians who want to defend the Bible have a responsibility to know what they are talking about.”  Head picks out seven problematic passages from only the first half of Gilbert’s article.  Here is a summary of what Head sees as problematic in Gilbert’s article and his responses:

1.  Gilbert talks about the Biblical original being written on paper.

Head:  “I think if we find a biblical manuscript on paper we can be 100 percent certain it is not the original.”

2.  Gilbert says we have 5,400 mss. going back to the third century or earlier.

Head:  Less than one per cent of the mss. we have go back “to anything like the third century” or earlier.

3.  Gilbert says there is only a gap of 45-75 years between the writing of the NT books and the mss. we have of those books.

Head:  “This is also potentially misleading. If we date P46 to around AD200 then we are looking at more like 140-150 years for the Pauline letters. For Mark we might have a gap of 200 years. For John perhaps 45-75 years works, but not for any other portion of the NT. Generalisations are not helpful.”

4.  Gilbert cites Codex Vaticanus as an example of a ms. in continuous use and suggests, “it’s well within the realm of possibility that we have in our museums today copies of the originals.”

Head:  Vaticanus is not a good example of continuous usage and:  “Nothing in this suggests that we have immediate copies of the originals in our museums, and as far as I am aware no one has ever argued such a case in any scholarly publication. Wishing doesn’t make it so.”

5.  Gilbert argues that the “gap” between the writing of NT books and the earliest mss. is not so great.  Also, the NT is better attested than other ancient works.  Gilbert says that we have only 8 copies of Thucydides' Peloponnesian War and the earliest is 1,300 years after the work’s writing.

Head:  “I really wish people wouldn’t keep saying this sort of thing. It is nonsensically ill informed. In fact there are 99 early mansucripts of Thucydides' PW, mostly papyrus, some of which go back to the third century BC, dozens from the first and second centuries (LDAB).”

6.  Gilbert discusses variants and argues they are over-counted by inclusion of versions and patristic citations.

Head:  “I’m really not sure where to start on this. It is nonsense from beginning to end.” He adds that Gilbert’s analysis “is completely vacuous. It suggests a lack of understanding of how the standard critical editions actually work, and no one who works with manuscripts would think like this.”

7.  Gilbert argues that the NT variants that do exist in the mss. are not widespread but are only found “in a few isolated places.”

Head:  “This is so wrong. I doubt this person has ever read a manuscript.”  He adds:  “The claim that textual variants within the New Testament ‘tend to cluster around the same few places in the text over and over again’ is not supported by any sort of reality.”  Head suggests opening any critical edition of the NT where one will find textual variants cited in the apparatus on every page.

Robert D. Marcello’s Evangelical Apologetic critique:

Adding to the critical pile-on to Gilbert’s article, on February 12 Robert D. Marcello, Research Director for the Center for New Testament Manuscripts, posted a critique of Gilbert’s article on Dan Wallace’s blog.

Here is a summary of Marcello’s five points of critique:

1.  Likely due to attempting to write on a popular level, Gilbert says the NT was originally written on paper rather than papyrus.

2.  Gilbert’s reference to Vaticanus and continuous use is a “false analogy.”  His claim that we have copies in museums that come directly from the originals is dubious.  Less than 1% of the mss. we have are within few generations of the originals.

3.  Gilbert’s discussion of the number of variants is wrong-headed.  Even conservative scholars acknowledge myriads of variants in NT mss. (not including versions and patristic citations).

4.  Gilbert’s statement that we have c. 5,400 NT mss. is too low.  The current number is c. 5,839 (5,600 at minimum).

5.  The “most egregious error” Gilbert perpetuates a common evangelical apologetic regarding variants [traced to Neil Lightfoot’s How We Got the Bible], wrongly arguing that the variant accounts do not refer to “unique readings” when, in fact, they do.

Marcello concludes:  “There is ample evidence to support the claim that the text of the New Testament is both reliable and stable. At the same time, we don’t need to appeal to false claims of bad counting or incorrect numbers to muster that evidence. These “Silly Statements” need to end if we are ever going to provide solid evidence for the reliability of the text.

A Confessional Critique of Gilbert:

As noted above, Head and Marcello have pointed out the factual problems with Gilbert’s article (book section).  Most importantly, they expose the problems with what we might call the “old evangelical” defense of the reliability of the text of the NT.  Evangelical apologist cannot get way with saying things like:

(1) We have thousands of early mss. of the Greek NT, when, in fact, only 1% come from the third century or earlier.

(2) Our thousands of NT mss. are superior to the  transmission of other works of antiquity.  This is true in many cases, but in some the transmission is comparable.

(3) The number of variants in the NT mss. can be dismissed or minimized.

This works in the evangelical “echo-chamber” but is less effective outside those circles.  It is not surprising perhaps that these kinds of arguments are found in a 9-Marks, neo-Calvinist author where insular and circular conversations are common (Dever endorses Gilbert, who endorses DeYoung, who endorses Dever, who endorses  Gilbert….).

Beyond the critiques offered by Snapp, Head, and Marcello, we can approach our critique of Gilbert’s article (book section) from another angle.  It fails not only due to factual problems but also and more importantly (IMHO) due to theological problems.

He is attempting to defend the reliable transmission of the Bible based on a restorationist approach rather than a confessional and preservationist approach.

Gilbert asks a good question:  “Are we left simply to give up and admit that all we have are a bunch of useless copies of copies of copies of copies, and that we’ll never have confidence what we have is what the authors actually wrote?”

But his apologetic answer is that we can have confidence (at least to a limited degree) in scholarly ability to reconstruct the original text (behind this, of course, is the modern notion of the elusive inerrant autographa).  This is why he rushes to defend gaps, variants, etc.  He does not defend the providential preservation of the autographa via the apographa, the view reflected in the Westminster CF and the 2LBCF-1689.  At core, then, Gilbert’s views on the text of Scripture reflect the weaknesses of those who are evangelical Calvinists but not confessional Calvinists.

Thus, Gilbert asserts his confidence in the restorationist approach:  “And for another thing, it turns out it’s precisely the existence of those thousands of copies, from all over the Roman Empire and with all their variations, that allows us to reconstruct with a huge degree of confidence what the originals said.” I find it striking that he puts “a huge degree of confidence” in italic.  This is one of the chief problems with the restorationist model.  It does not even see absolute certainty as a conceivable goal.

Later Gilbert compares restoration of the text as like solving a “logic puzzle.”  He adds:

That’s exactly the kind of work scholars have done for centuries on the fragments and manuscripts of the New Testament available to us. The puzzles they face, of course, are far more complicated than these simple examples, but you get the idea. By comparing the ancient copies we have, and thinking carefully about why certain changes or errors might have been made by copyists, scholars reach highly confident conclusions about what the original documents said. It’s not a matter of guesswork or magic, much less of assumption or simply “making things up,” but rather of careful deductive reasoning.

He assures the reader:

Of course you’re free to disagree with any one of the conclusions those scholars reach; Christians have fun arguing about this kind of thing all the time.

And he concludes:

And far from diminishing our ability to identify what the originals said, the vast number of existing copies actually allows us to deductively reason out, to a high degree of historical confidence, what John, Luke, Paul, and the other writers actually wrote.

Note again the emphasis on “a high degree of historical confidence.” 

Here is the problem: What do we do if one scholar reconstructs the text in one way and another scholar reconstructs it in another way?  Which side do we choose?  Who has the competence to make this decision?  Can you make this decision without knowing Greek, studying mss., etc.?  Is it a personal and individual choice for every Christian to make individually?  A decision to be made by a committee of scholars?  An ecclesial decision?  If so, by each local church?  By a body of churches (synod, association, denomination)?  What of the catholic (universal) church?  At root here is in fact a crisis of epistemology and authority for evangelicals who have embraced the modern critical text and the restorationist method.

There is an alternative:  confessionalism.



Anonymous said...

How do you define "confessionalism"?

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...

I would say that Reformed "confessionalism" is convictional commitment to understanding, articulating, and living out the faith and interpreting the Scriptures with the guidance of one of the historic, full-orbed, and Biblically faithful Reformed confessions of faith, like the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689). This perspective would be in distinction from, for example, Calvinistic Baptists who hold to the five points but who do not affirm one of the historic confessions and, so, do not affirm key Reformed views beyond soteriology, like the RP of worship, the abiding validity of the fourth commandment, etc.

Hope this helps, JTR

Anonymous said...

I see. Do you view this perspective as merely helpful or Biblically required?

Mad Jack said...

This is 'way above my pay grade.

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...

OK Anon, let me follow you down the Socratic rabbit hole. Do I see confessionalism as helpful? Yes, of course, I do. I think I pretty plainly put this forward in WM47.

Do I see confessionalism as Biblically required? If by that you are asking whether I believe confessionalism is "required" for salvation, the answer, of course, would be absolutely not. That said, however, I could say the same about many helpful and positive things with firm Biblical basis. Is baptism "required" for salvation? Is church membership? Is daily Bible reading? Is regular participation in the Lord's Supper? I believe there is a Biblical basis for confessionalism and that it will prove a blessing for the believer much like obedience to baptism, church membership, daily Bible reading, regular taking of the Lord's Supper, etc.

Would you be willing to respond to these questions?:

What do you believe are the basic things that a Christian should believe and practice?

Do you see anything in, for example, the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith (1689) that wrongly or inadequately articulates faithful teaching on belief and practice?